As he began his transition from partisan player into Elder Statesman, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, was reflective with the local press corps at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 18, after the news broke of his resignation (effective April 30) to lead the University of Houston's new Hobby School of Public Affairs this fall.
"I'm not leaving public policy or public service," Watson reminded reporters as he thanked voters, his colleagues, his staff, family, and even the media for their parts in his 20-plus-year career in Austin and Texas politics. "I anticipate that [with] the things I care deeply about, that I'll continue to play some role."
Watson, Austin's mayor from 1997 to 2001 (when he left to run for attorney general on the 2002 Democratic "Dream Team" ticket) and its senator since 2007, has played "some role" in quite a few things that have shaped today's city, from the Downtown renaissance to protecting lands over the Edwards Aquifer. These include (successful) forays into health care at UT's Dell Medical School, the Dell Seton Medical Center, and Austin State Hospital, and (still unresolved) mobility initiatives to rebuild I-35 and deliver a modern transit system to Central Texas.
As Watson put it, before he took over City Hall as leader of the "Green Machine" at-large Council in the Nineties, "Austin had a de facto two-party system" pitting "the environment vs. developers, the Save Our Springs Alliance vs. the Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin vs. the Sierra Club. It was an all-or-nothing, winner-take-all politics at a time when our city needed us to figure out how we were going to grow. One of the things I'm most proud of is that we brought forward policies that ultimately caused that system to fall away" and recognize that environmental protection "was valuable to all aspects of what we were doing."
Today's battles over the Land Development Code are aftershocks of the earthquake brought about by the Watson Councils. Even in his long service in the Texas Senate – a gig that often enables politicians to grow distant from their constituents – Austinites have looked to Watson to take charge on thorny local issues and campaigns, just as his fellow Democrats in the upper chamber have looked to him for strategy and leadership on the budget, education (notably higher ed), the Sunset Commission, and more. "I've always felt really blessed that this community has allowed and asked me to become involved in things," he said. "As a state senator, that doesn't always happen."
So now that he's not only leaving that role but straight-up leaving town, what advice does he have for Austin as we try to fill those shoes? "The voters, I think, do a pretty good job of figuring out who they want to lead under different circumstances," he said. "My advice is to listen to everybody and make sure everyone's voice is heard, but also be open to let people try new things. I think the community allowed me to experiment, and not everything worked out exactly the way we thought. But I've always had great confidence in the way that this community makes its decisions, and I wouldn't second-guess them."
Watson flatly refused to signal any preference for a potential successor in what's certain to be a wild special election – "I wouldn't be surprised if you have multiple really good people running" – and acknowledged that his new role requires a balanced political approach. Saying he's had "very good conversations" with Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP senators, he feels he's been successful in his career up until now by "figuring out ways to listen to other people, to hear them, to involve them, to learn from them. I frankly think it's one of the skills of good leadership and one of the skills that needs to be taught. So I look forward to trying to teach those kinds of skills."
As tributes and thank-yous poured in throughout the day Tuesday, contenders for Watson's Senate seat signaled their interest – with more to come, and some bound to change their minds rather quickly. Still on the board as of press time: state Reps. Donna Howard, Gina Hinojosa, Celia Israel, and Eddie Rodriguez (their colleague Sheryl Cole is taking a pass); Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt; Council Member Greg Casar; 2018 House District 46 runner-up Chito Vela; and outspoken attorney/Dem donor Adam Loewy. No GOP names have emerged as of yet, though local party chair Matt Mackowiak promises Republicans will contest the seat. Asked directly about his own interest, Mayor Steve Adler demurred, saying, "The moving on of such a longstanding community champion takes my breath away. It's hard to imagine Austin without his leadership."
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